Is it a cutter? Or a fastball? Maybe a curve? Maybe a cursor?
For 44 innings, hitters from Pensacola and Birmingham and other southern cities wouldn’t answer that question correctly. The man in front of them raised his right leg while keeping his arms folded over his waist. As he rushed off the mound with his left leg, his arm on the same side darted forward and threw an often unattainable ball. Some hitters swayed and missed the third strike, while many others made weak contact against the Reds’ system’s top pitcher prospect.
Time and time again, Nick Lodolo has made the world’s toughest game look like easy.
These muddled hitters returned to the shelter, sometimes solemnly, other times with despondency, several times angrily after failing to knock out a blow in the sweltering summer heat. A spectator at Chattanooga’s AT&T Field would never have guessed it, but the man who stoked 68 hitters hated tossing in the still, damp air as much as he hated sitting in it.
“Growing up in Southern California the weather was sunny everyday but it just wasn’t like that,” Lodolo said. “It’s hot there, but it’s not that humid, I’m telling you. There’s a breeze over there in California.
Lodolo will no longer have to worry about the humidity in the Tennessee Valley, having been promoted to triple A Louisville in early August. He leaves Chattanooga after proving himself at the Double-A minor league level and sporting a 1.84 ERA over ten starts. It was his first professional baseball exposure outside of an 18-innings cup of coffee shared between Billings and Dayton after being selected 7th overall by the Reds in the 2019 Draft. Unlike his time at Texas Christian University, where the NCAA freak has spent the majority of his time in Fort Worth (which the California native still considers his home), his time in Chattanooga has shown him the less publicized aspect of being a prospect.
“It’s not glamorous, I can tell you. It’s different, because you’re on the road every two weeks and you live in a suitcase because you can get on or off at any time, ”Lodolo said. “You must always have your things with you, so you must pack your whole life with you in a suitcase.”
With players coming in and out of the clubhouse as they are sent up or down the system, the rosters transform and evolve almost every week. Outside of a core of players like Yoel Yanqui and Lorenzo Cedrola, Lodolo had to rely on what he ironically dubbed “networking” during spring training to get to grips with his teammates on the fly.
“We’re all in spring training together, so at least you’ve had the chance to meet everyone,” Lodolo said. “You know everyone pretty well, because it’s kind of like a networking thing. “
He entered 2021 as a third of a much-vaunted triumvirate of prospects on Chattanooga’s roster. Flame thrower Hunter Greene was the first to be promoted, and powerful shortstop Jose Barrero was next. While Lodolo is essentially guaranteed to get a glimpse of the highest level in the game, his manager has said you wouldn’t know it from the way he has performed in the clubhouse.
“It was great having him around the clubhouse and being part of the team,” Lookouts manager Ricky Gutierrez said. “The most impressive thing is that even though he had prestigious status (as the seventh overall pick in the 2019 Draft), he’s a humble boy who wants to fit in and not be left out or treated any differently.”
He might have been “just another guy” in the locker room, but Lodolo was anything but when he mowed down hitters atop the mound. Known for having a diverse bag coming out of college, Lodolo has continued to sharpen his arsenal since turning pro. Unlike many pitchers, which use broken balls when they are ahead in the count, Lodolo uses low speed pitches to throw strikes during any count.
“As a batter, if you get a 2-0 count, you’ll usually get a fastball to take the lead,” Lodolo said. “But luckily I was able to work on everything, so I can run everything on any account. This is why I think I am very successful. I am not predictable.
A scout of the year Baseball flyer agreed, writing, “His breaking ball and change doesn’t serve your typical ‘cheat me’ throws either, and he uses them to throw strikes and get ahead in the scoring.” The medalist Olympic silver Mark Kolozsvary caught some of Lodolo’s starts and was the third person to agree with that assessment.
“I think his deception and ability to throw any of his shots for hitting is a big deal,” the Lookout receiver and national team starter said before leaving for Tokyo. “It puts the hitters off balance.”
The batters were off balance for the first month of the season, as Lodolo racked up his two wins to claim the Double-A South Player of the Month award. He had his best outing of the season on May 19, when he struck out 11 Mississippi Braves while throwing just 90 shots overall. A call to Triple-A seemed inevitable and only a few weeks away.
Then came the blisters on his left hand, a crippling backhand for a left-hander like Lodolo. Baseball’s 59th best prospect (according to MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo) only made a cameo appearance in June after missing two weeks, then sidelined another half a month before concocting four abbreviated starts in July. . The popular hope has not started more than four innings after this great outing against the Braves in mid-May.
“I felt like I was in a really good place on the mound, and something so small was really running out of time,” Lodolo said. “You want to keep your pace and build that tall account until it was before.”
Perhaps Lodolo could have thrown more than the 70 or so shots he was artificially held to after an injury. But for Gutierrez, jeopardizing a potentially transcendent career for ultimately insignificant victories in mid-July was not worth it.
“With his talent, we had to make sure he was okay and 100% with him before he got on that mound,” said Gutierrez. “If there is something wrong or a concern, then we have to be careful.”
The Lookouts therefore remained cautious and allowed a slightly sober version of the howler to perform in front of not only fans, but a more knowledgeable section of the population. Scouts littered the seats behind the marble, armed with radar guns, notebooks, iPads and a watchful eye. Even after Lodolo gave up a few shots to inferior competition, he impressed them by avoiding the implosion that many other Lookouts starters suffered.
“He wasn’t as sharp as last week and his business wasn’t as good, but he still had strikeouts,” said an anonymous scout after Lodolo managed to come away without an earned-run average swollen. “That’s the mark of a good pitcher.”
The Cincinnati Reds promoted Lodolo to the next level on August 3, and the Californian boy left a town he never really got the chance to know. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the most he usually saw of Chattanooga was on his trip across the bridge from his Northshore apartment to the downtown stadium.
“I’ll be honest, we don’t really go out a lot,” Lodolo said. “I can’t even say I have a favorite restaurant. We kind of floated around the stadium and then went back to the apartment, because by the time we were done at the stadium nothing was open.
Like every other top-rated prospect in a major league farming system, the possibilities for the future seem endless. the Baseball flyer sees a solid starter in the middle of the spin, and others envision the kind of ace who can anchor a pitching stick for a decade. Trent Rosecrans, the Reds’ beat writer for Athleticism, says Lodolo’s immediate future could be a box office option for a Reds team with a weak set of relievers and playoff aspirations.
“I would say it’s a possibility that he will be called in to be in the bullpen,” Rosecrans said via email. “He and Hunter Greene would be possibilities. Right now, however, no reliever on the list has options. If some continue to underperform and things move closer, there could be a good chance. “
His former manager has a high comparison for his former player. Gutierrez enjoyed a 12-year major league career and turned to Cooperstown when asked to find a pitcher from his day that Lodolo reminds him of.
“I could see him as a Randy Johnson type guy, with his demeanor and his weather stripping,” Gutierrez said. “He has the same long legs, the gangly figure, he throws the ball with the same arm and he reminds me of a young Randy.”
While Lodolo does not and may never have the four-seam Johnson at 100 MPH, the rest of his arsenal could one day match the multitude of untouchable breaking balls from the five-time award winner Cy Young. But even though Lodolo made pitching easy at Chattanooga, he knows he has a lot to learn before he can meet his former manager’s high expectations.
“Baseball is a very complicated kid’s game,” Lodolo said. “There’s a lot of things that people don’t realize that comes into play, and it’s not just about throwing the ball into the strike zone. There is much more to do. ”
“It’s not an easy sport.
Graph by Elisabeth dumont, and original photo of Glen Austin.